How to Look Ayeyo in Her Eyes
Alive or dead, a Somali grandmother represents the entire existence and significance of your family, your tribe, your country and your womanhood. To look into the eyes of your grandmother, your Ayeyo, is to acknowledge your origins while also staring down the origins of your Black womanhood and confronting your futures.
Looking your Ayeyo in her eyes is a task that most young Somali woman never get the chance to do. Most Ayeyos make the weighted decision to stay in Somalia, deciding that they could not bare to be torn from the Horn and have little interested in living in Canada. The privilege of seeing your Ayeyo in the flesh is surreal but also impossibly overwhelming, as you scan her for information and wisdom. When she appears you reach for her eagerly, while also trying to be gentle with her frame. Her wrinkly, soft, strong hands squeeze your wrists as the two of you exchange kisses on each cheek, until she collapses into your arms for a warm hug that smells like your own mother’s archaic perfume and cardamon that she’s been crushing to make tea for your family.
You’ve been so anxious about the choreographic squeezing and kissing that you haven’t had a chance to look her right in her eyes. You’ve been blindly smiling at the blurry figure in front of you but now your eyes focus and trail upwards. You begin to inspect the Somali garment she has draped around her, her garbasar, which wraps around her face like origami. You determine her garbasar is a cross between magenta and red, with pink detailing and a greyish, sparkly black threading. Her garbasar is a quality piece and is in good shape, although you notice the dye has slightly faded, not as saturated of a colour than it should be, and the greyish, sparkly black threading known as wihl is also a tad worn. You notice the quiet wrinkles, which tell you that she’s recently hand-washed and air-dried the piece, but didn’t have time to iron the small creases you see. You store that pinkish, reddish colour in your brain, and file it amongst the images you have of your mother, because you notice that the colour is also staple in your mother’s closet. You follow the folds to find her face.
When you arrive, you mind tells you to digest the image you are seeing bit by bit, but almost immediately, you slip and fall head first into her eyes. You can see how the aging process has picked at her eyes, as you notice the nuclear sclerosis occupying her eyes. The density of the crystalline lens nucleus in her eyes have turned the deep, dark brown eyes that you saw in the faded pictures, that you recognized on your mother’s face and in the bathroom mirror are now cloudy marbles. The surviving traces of brown are almost greyish, or maybe just glassy, but you can’t get close enough to tell because you don’t want her to notice you inspecting. From the outskirts of her iris, a silvery baby blue is creeping in and surrounding her dark brown, which startles you because you’ve never had family with blue eyes.
Her cloudy blue eyes hold your attention for the rest of your inspection, and make your heart weigh like glass and make your eyes glaze over. Ayeyo’s Somali tongue is too quick for you to keep pace and she doesn’t speak a word of English, so before your throat caves in you say, “waan ku jeclahay” (I love you), which feels heavy yet profoundly insufficient. She understands that you do not understand her, and you understand how suffocating that must be for her, so you make sure to look her in the eye again so she knows you understand, but also so she knows what this means to you. You look her in her eyes because you know its the only thing you can do, and also the one thing you’ve always wanted to do and most likely, never have a chance to see again.
Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. Routledge, 2000.
Hassan, Huda. Ayeyo Ebado in Burco, Somaliland. My Birds Nest, Huda Hassan, 29 Oct 2017 http://mybirdsnest.com/post/101302057018/this-is-my-ayeyo-ebado-my-mothers-mother-i-met.